Comic Book Review – Absolute Carnage

Absolute Carnage (2020)
Reprints Free Comic Book Day 2019: Spider-Man/Venom #1, Absolute Carnage #1-5
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Ryan Stegman

During the 1990s, there was a character I disliked even more than Venom, Carnage. If you aren’t familiar with Carnage, he is Cletus Kasaday, a serial killer whom Eddie Brock shared a prison cell with. When the symbiote returned to bond with Eddie and break him out of prison, it also gave birth to another symbiote. This organism bonded with Kasaday to create Carnage. I always felt like the character’s only selling point is that he was “edgy” in look and behavior. He was just teeth and claws who killed people, a villain that felt more at home in Image Comics than at Marvel. Apparently, he is very popular because Marvel has sold many titles based on Carnage being there, definitely not as much as Venom but still enough to make me think he must have some sort of fanbase.

Over the years, Carnage has been dissected and pieced out so that multiple characters have had some version of the symbiote attached to them, the same can be said for Venom. Kasady has somehow resurrected himself from the dead and is aware of the existence of Knull, the god whom the symbiotes worship and imprison in deep space. He wants to awaken the dark entity and bring him to Earth, which involves him harvesting the pieces of the symbiotes in past users. This gives the event a natural hook to bring together a variety of characters across the Marvel Universe. It makes sense that Captain America, Hawkeye, Norman Osborn, and Mile Morales would all be here because of their past connection with the symbiotes.

Absolute Carnage is better than the expectations I had, it still feels incomplete and has a very sudden ending. Last summer, I spent months reading through almost every major DC crossover event since 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and found that most of them are terrible because they have a weak conceit and fail to give the characters any sense of personality in favor of dense plotting. Cates manages to sidestep all that a little, Eddie Brock is the main character in this story and he’s in every scene with at least one Marvel character to play off of. There are some big over the top action pieces, but they have a good flow and are mostly coherent. 

The core of the story is a showdown between Brock and Kasady, and the final issue makes that the centerpiece. The other characters’ involvement is kept in tie-ins on the side and isn’t enormously consequential to the main title. There are a couple of moments that reference events in the main Venom title, but I will be reading and reviewing that for next month to fill in those gaps. These aren’t vital pieces of the story, but they could add some confusion for a moment. Otherwise, this is the most tightly focus crossover event I’ve read in a long time.

While Donny Cates is basically presenting a reimagining of the 1990s mega-event Maximum Carnage, his version leans into the horror elements of Venom. This is a smart idea, in the same way, Al Ewing is making Hulk into body horror at the moment. I am a big fan of comic creators stepping back from a long-running character and evaluate the most primal elements of the figure. Fantastic Four should always be about exploration and discovery, so make it like Star Trek. Captain America does best when he is up against metaphors for enemies of the United States or entwined with espionage.

Whatever you do, you need to back Cap up against the wall and make it appear that he’s losing until he wins. Spider-Man should always be in a struggle between his heroic career and his personal life. Newer characters like Venom are still being decoded, and Cates is doing the work of setting up who Eddie Brock is going forward. The anti-heroes of the 1990s have had extreme trouble translating into contemporary comics, but I think Venom as a Lovecraftian horror character is the smartest path the character could ever go down.

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